Overhaul urged for scandal-hit U.N. assembly chief's office

Reuters News
Posted: Mar 29, 2016 12:18 PM

By Louis Charbonneau

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - A United Nations task force recommended in a report on Tuesday new ethical rules and financial disclosures for the office of the presidency of the U.N. General Assembly after a bribery scandal involving a former assembly head.

A U.S. investigation into the general assembly presidency, a rotating post filled by member states, has led to charges against seven people accused of participating in a scheme involving more than $1.3 million in bribes.

U.S. prosecutors have accused John Ashe, former U.N. Ambassador from Antigua and Barbuda and 2013-2014 president of the General Assembly, of receiving bribes from Chinese businessmen including Macau real estate developer Ng Lap Seng. Ashe has pleaded not guilty to tax fraud charges and Ng has pleaded not guilty to charges including bribery and money laundering.

Earlier this month, Francis Lorenzo, a suspended deputy U.N. Ambassador from the Dominican Republic, pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate with U.S. authorities.

Two other defendants, Sheri Yan and Heidi Hong Piao, pleaded guilty. Julia Vivi Wang, the newest defendant, has not yet entered a plea, and Jeff Yin, Ng's assistant, pleaded not guilty.

A spokesman for Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara declined to comment on the report.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon created a task force to improve transparency at the office of the assembly president, who is not a U.N. employee. He also requested an audit, due to be published soon.

"Allegations involving the president, which have tarnished the image and reputation of the (U.N.), occurred in an environment where there were significant loopholes and blind spots in the operational arrangements for the president and the office," the task force said in the report.

"Despite the high level of visibility of the office, there are insufficient transparency and accountability measures."

The assembly's current president, Mogens Lykketoft of Denmark, said in a statement that a committee of the 193-nation assembly would discuss the report on April 7.

The task force noted that although staff to the Office had increased, its operating budget has been static since 1998 except for inflation adjustments, and stands at $326,000.

It said the financial and staff needs of the president have been met from voluntary contributions, in cash and in-kind, from donors including Member States, United Nations entities, foundations and non-governmental organizations.

The report said there was no systematic oversight of funding.

The task force recommended developing core ethical principles to which assembly presidents would commit and financial disclosures to be made at the beginning and end of a General Assembly president's term.

It said the assembly should require presidents to disclose travel and other expenses and that at least one permanent staff position should be created to ensure continuity from one presidency to the next.

(Additional reporting by Nate Raymond Editing by G Crosse and Fiona Ortiz)